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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 1/26/01

Children of a Lesser God
1986 (2000) - Paramount

review by Dan Kelly of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Children of a Lesser God

Film Rating: B

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B+/D

Specs and Features

118 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, single-layered, Amaray keep case packaging, theatrical trailer, film-themed menu screens, scene access (17 chapters), languages: English and French (DD mono), subtitles: English for the deaf and hard of hearing

When it comes to watching some of the more recent films (as in the past twenty years) that have come to be known as classics, there are those that I've rushed to watch... and those I've made little effort to see. Children of a Lesser God falls in to the latter category. To me, it was the kind of movie that was designed to get my parents into the theatres. It's not that I thought it was a bad film, but it's one of those movies that came out in my teen years that held no interest for me. There were no aliens, no masked killers, no wild shoot-outs and no Saturday Night Live stars. Now, however, I can say that I've watched it. And I can also say that I liked it. But outside of a pair of fine performances by the two leads, I really didn't see anything in Children of a Lesser God that would make it a true "classic". It's a good, entertaining story, but this kind of thing has been done before.

James Leeds (William Hurt) is arriving as the new teacher at a school for the deaf on an island in Washington state. Once there, he meets with some initial hesitation on the part of the students. They're used to teachers who aren't going to challenge their way of learning. For one thing, Leeds insists that they learn to speak and read lips, to complement their use of sign language - something they resist at first. Naturally, they soon learn to meet him halfway. It's not an entirely original variation on the student/teacher theme, but the story is handled with sensitivity and a genuine interest in the subject matter that makes its weaknesses less important.

And then there's the bigger part of the movie - the love story. Leeds starts to fall for Sarah Norman (Marlee Matlin), who was once the best student at the school. But now, many years after she graduated, she's working there as a janitor, and is lovingly referred to as a "pain in the ass" by the school's Dean, Dr. Franklin (Philip Bosco). In many ways, that's exactly what she is. Her temper often gets the best of her, and she drives away anyone that tries to get close to her. Leeds is able to see past her anger and confusion, but brings out the worst in Sarah when he insists that she too learn to speak to communicate with him. When Sarah's resistance finally comes to a head in the film's climax, the strength of Matlin's performance really shines. It's a heartbreaking, disturbing piece of work that resonates in your mind long after the movie ends.

As effective as this part of the story is, it doesn't really break any new cinematic ground. It's your basic "boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back" type of drama. Still, it's a tried and true formula, and the polished work of Hurt and Matlin make it worth watching. Hurt is a versatile actor, who brings warmth and depth to his character, and the filmmakers manage to avoid most of the pitfalls of the "strong man breaks wild woman" cliche. Matlin (in her Oscar-winning screen debut) is also very good. In Sarah, she creates a character of many layers that easily stands up to Hurt's work. Together, their chemistry is undeniable. But in the end, I think Children of a Lesser God's focus on two separate storylines prevents either one from fully developing and becoming completely engaging.

Paramount has prepared a good-looking DVD presentation of Children of a Lesser God. First of all, the film has been given an anamorphic transfer that's very good. Color saturation is accurate, with little bleed. Flesh tones and black levels are also solid, if a little muted. Some light edge enhancement rears its ugly head every now and again, and there's also some grain and age-related issues with the print. But this is, otherwise, a good DVD picture. The film's soundtrack is included in it's original monaural form (in both English and French). It's a decent mix, with clean dialogue, that lacks the hiss and static that is sometimes apparent in other mono soundtracks. It also has a fairly full sound to it, without the usual tinny aftertaste. It's not outstanding, but it gets the job done.

The blurb on the back of the DVD packaging calls Children of a Lesser God "one of the most critically acclaimed films of the 80s." If that's the case, Paramount certainly might have included a little more in the way of bonus material. All you'll find here is the film's theatrical trailer (with the God-awful tagline "Love has a language all its own"), which is at least presented with a decent anamorphic transfer of its own. Trailers, chapter stops and interactive menus are all good, but I think it might be time for studios to stop calling them special features. Maybe it's time for a little box on the back movie-only DVD packaging that says, "standard features". I don't mind the occasional movie-only disc, but if you're going to call a film "classic", back it up with some REAL special features.

Children of a Lesser God is a good movie, with some terrific performances. On DVD, it's a basic disc that does what it needs to - present the movie in decent quality - but not much more. Unless your a big fan, it's probably a good renter. Still, you at least have to give Paramount props for digging deeper into their better catalog titles and releasing them on DVD.

Dan Kelly
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